SOMETIME IN the early days of high school I first became acquainted with Henry David Thoreau, and from then on he became a large part of my being.
It is almost as though Thoreau had me in mind when he once wrote: “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.”
The reading of Walden not only set me on a new course, it has molded my thinking, my actions, and my activities all along the way.
Whether we Americans realize it or not, the gentle creator of Walden must have had—and will continue to have—a shaping influence on our national life. Quotations from Thoreau spring out at me from newspaper stories, magazines and books. Only recently I discovered that the now immortal inaugural statement of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, came almost directly from the pen of Thoreau.
I first visited Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, in 1923, at age 19, which was long before the exact location of Thoreau’s cabin by the lake was known. Ten years later we took our two young daughters to Walden Pond, one a fouryear-old, the other still riding comfortably in her mother’s womb. Lovingly we placed rocks on the cairn where the Thoreau cabin was thought to have stood. We walked around the pond—which is actually of course a sizable lake.
Renting a boat, we rowed, as Thoreau often did, out into the center of Walden Pond to absorb the scenes of sunset. We explored another lake nearby, and other rural paths, where Thoreau often took his walks. We visited his grave. In all the years since, whenever the Boston area was on our itinerary, a visit to Walden Pond was a must.
The creators of immortal books and paintings often have something in common. The artist Vincent van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime but they eventually brought millions. Thoreau had to publish Walden himself and, of the 2500 printed, most of them had to be stored—unsold–on his own shelves. “My library has many books-700 of them are by myself,” he once said.
At one time Helen and I planned a documentary motion picture on Walden, both the pond and the book. Although we finished the script, which was composed entirely of carefully selected excerpts from the book, we never completed the film.
The following brief “excerpts from the excerpts” of that script, give a hint at the Thoreauian qualities which have molded my life. The quotations, all from the book Walden, have in some instances been rearranged in sequence and of course are not contiguous as they are given here:
The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.
Talk of a divinity in Man! Why do men degenerate ever?
What makes families run out? What is the nature of the luxury which enervates and destroys nations? Are we sure that there is none of it in our lives? I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, if only to wake my neighbors up.
Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to elevation of mankind.
Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Before we can adorn our houses with beautiful objects, the walls must be stripped, and our lives must be stripped, and beautiful housekeeping and beautiful living be laid for a foundation.
When a man has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.
I do not speak to those who are well employed, but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented.
I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.
I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.
But to make haste to my own experiment. I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Some of my pleasantest hours were when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.
Direct your eye inward, and you’ll find a thousand regions in your mind yet undiscovered. Be the Lewis and Clark of your own streams and oceans. Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Explore thyself.
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
I am on the alert for the first signs of spring.
We loiter in winter while it is already spring. In a pleasant spring morning all men’s sins are forgiven. Such a day is a truce to vice. Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors.
You may have known your neighbor yesterday for a thief, a drunkard, or a sensualist; but the sun shines bright and warm this first spring morning, recreating the world, and you see not only an atmosphere of goodwill about him, but even a savor of holiness groping for expression. Even he has entered into the joy of the Lord.
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.
August 14, 1990—Walden Pond and the forests surrounding it have been threatened by a major development—the construction of 139 condominiums and all the commercial requirements which become a part of such a project. Word has just come that that threat has been eliminated by the dedicated efforts of a group known as the Walden Woods Project, co-chaired by rock star Don Henley, Michael Kennedy (son of the late Robert E Kennedy), and former Sen. Paul Tsongas. The group has purchased the critical 25-acre forest tract and also raised over three and a half million dollars to obtain a conservation restriction on 25 adjoining acres. A Walden “Victory Picnic” celebrating this critical rescue was attended, among many others, by singers Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, and John Hall.
Thanks to all these dedicated workers, the locale of Thoreau’s great book, Walden, has been saved—a work which helped lay the foundations of the environmental movement in America. Someday our two great grandchildren—and eventually perhaps even their descendants—will absorb inspiration from the memory-charged atmosphere of a Walden Pond which will be much as it was when an inspired visionary Henry David Thoreau immortalized its unspoiled natural grandeur.